There are faster ones. There are rarer ones and ones that are easier to maintain. But I’m not sure there’s a better rally homologation special than the Lancia Delta Integrale.
[Welcome to the Jalopnik Fantasy Garage, where I present you with the greatest, rarest, most desirable cars ever made and you decide if they should sit in our own collective collection. This is the return of this series after a six-year hiatus. You can see all the cars currently in the JFG at the bottom of this article. New entries in addition to the old will be voted on every week!]
What is a homologation special? Well, back in the earliest days of the automobile, there was little to no distinction between racing cars and production cars. If you wanted to race your Hispano-Suiza on the Mille Miglia road race across Italy, all you had to do was take off the fenders and the headlights and drive to Italy. When you were done with the race, you could bolt everything back on and go back to your country estate.
By the second half of the 20th century, though, pure racing cars were much more specialized. They were different enough from road cars that race organizers had to set up special classes for them. At races like the 24 Hours of Le Mans you would have a prototype classes where there cars pushed the boundaries of aerodynamics, chassis materials, and suspension design and below that you would have modified production cars.
Since racing organizers defined everything in rules, they had to define what exactly a production car was. That meant defining how many cars a constructor had to build for their racer to be considered by the rules as a regular, ordinary production car.
Naturally, carmakers figured out how to exploit this system.
Carmakers realized that instead of entering their prototype cars in the tight prototype class, they could just build a bunch of copies of their prototype-style racers and enter them in the more loose production class. It would be legal, so long as they built enough cars that ended up in private hands.
These cars were known as homologation specials, as you can imagine, they were intended to keep costs and speeds down in motorsports, but they ended up being a good way of cheating the system.
Rallying followed a similar track to what happened in with Le Mans rules. Like in Le Mans, rallying used to be contested solely by production cars. All the way up through the 1960s, ordinary people would turn up to races like the Rallye Monte Carlo in the same kind of Minis and Citroens and Fords as you’d see running errands around town.
Starting in the very late ’60s, though, more money started coming into rallying, and teams started entering Le Mans-style homologation specials. Race organizers classified them as production cars, but cars like the Alpine A110 and the Lancia Stratos were more like racing cars with license plates. Four hundred road-legal cars had to be built, but their cockpits were incredibly small, the engines sat behind the driver, and there was no kind of everyday practicality or thought given to how the car would work as an ordinary passenger car.
As more money and attention came into the sport, rally organizers relaxed homologation restrictions in the early ’80s with what they called Group B. Companies only had to build 200 road cars to qualify their race versions for the class. This meant that carmakers built extremely fast, extremely dangerous near-prototype cars. Group B cars got so fast and so dangerous that the international organizers cancelled the class after only a few years.
This left rallying with what was called Group A. This lower class was genuinely meant for modified production cars. To classify, 5000 road cars had to be built in that year and 25,000 base models had to be built overall. Naturally, carmakers saw this as an opportunity to game the system again. They started building up modified rally specials, then selling off 5,000 copies to the public.
They never were as extreme as the Group B cars, but with more advanced technology, they ended up nearly as fast. More importantly, with so many more examples on the road, these cars became absolute legends with the buying public.
The Mistubishi Evo and Subaru WRX are with us still today, but car nuts still lust after cars like the Escort Cosworth, the Celica GT4, the Mazda 323 GTX, and the Nissan Pulsar GTI-R. Ok, maybe most people have forgotten about the 323 GTX, but that’s beside the point.
Group A rallying went on for years, and gave the world some unbelievably fast cars. The kind of speed you can get out of a mid 2000s Evo IX or a contemporary WRX STI is unbelievable.
I respect everyone who does build up those cars to extreme specifications, but it’s the Lancia Delta Integrale I lust after.
I mean, look at it.
Is that not the most finely-proportioned, box-flared piece of design you’ve ever seen?
Ok, with that out of the way, let me put forward the thesis of the Delta Integrale: it was designed simply to be as fast as possible, and while there are faster cars out there, something about the Integrale makes it endure. It has grown obsolete, but it remains utterly desirable.
Let me start with explaining why it was so good at its job of creating speed back when it was new.
The Delta Integrale remains one of the most dominant cars in the history of rallying. Lancia was possibly tipped off early to the oncoming death of Group B, and they had the Integrale ready for the very first rally of the Group A era back in ’87. And the car dominated straight away.
And it kept on dominating, winning the manufacturer’s title six years in a row. No other car in the history of the WRC has been so consistently victorious. Contemporary reports talk about how it took years for other manufacturers to come close to challenging the Delta, how the Integrale flattered the driver with exceptional balance to match its power.
Watch how the car four wheel drifts over curbs and over rocks calmly, cleanly. Like every slide was meant to be. Like the cliffs and trees and people lining the road weren’t even there.
At the very deepest roots of the rally car was the 1979 Lancia Delta, a front-drive shopping car based on the even more pedestrian Fiat Ritmo/Strada. The rally and homologation car got an open diff at the front, a viscous coupling diff in the center (like a Subaru WRX) and a Torsen limited-slip diff at the back (like, of all things, an Audi R8). The front/rear torque split started out as 56 front/44 rear and steadily shifted rearwards as the years wore on, ending up at 43 front/57 rear.
The name of the rally and homologation version also changed over the years. It started out in ’86 the very subtle, no box flares HF 4WD, then it became the Integrale in ’88, then in ’91 came the Evoluzione and in ’93 the final 16-valved Evoluzione 2. Power of the two-liter inline four went from 165 horsepower in the 1200 kg HF 4WD to 210 and 215 for the 1350 kilo Evoluzione and
Evoluzione 2 models. This is all stemming from the base ’79 Delta, which thundered down the road with all of 85 hp from 1.3 liters.
It even looks fast in this hopelessly ’80s press shot, presumably taken in some kind of dark coke cave lit only by lasers. Randy Wiper was likely on the stereo.
The horsepower might not sound like a lot today, but the road-going Integrale was faster than the exceedingly expensive Audi Quattro and every bit as quick on the road as a contemporary Ferrari or Porsche, as CAR Magazine tested in ’92. That’s all down to the rally roots of the Integrale. As a homologation special, it has lots of suspension travel and components beefed up specifically for rough forest rally stages. There’s even an oil cooler for the power steering, and that’s in the road car, not just the rally version.
It all comes together to make the Integrale incredibly secure. Where bumps and crests and ridges and rain make other cars hard work, the Integrale runs easily.
What I find so intriguing about the Integrale is that its weight (1350 kilos/just under 3,000 pounds for the Evoluzione, losing weight as you look at older models) and its four-wheel drive doesn’t that doesn’t stop it from being nimble and light on its feet. The steering in particular is some of the best on any modern car, almost unbelievably so for something putting power to the front wheels. It fizzes and talks in just the way you need when the pavement or gravel changes texture beneath you, or when rain suddenly switches from a mist to a thunderstorm.
It’s not just that the Integrale is fast on the road, it’s that it’s deeply enjoyable there. The way the turbo engine roars as the yellow-on-black dial turns past 3,000 rpm. The way the steering sits so easily in your hands, reading to you the grip at the wheels. The way the car bounds over the road like the little elephant on Lancia’s bygone rally logo.
The car is far from perfect, I should say. Even when it was brand new, cars would show up at dealerships with doors a few millimeters off of alignment. Paint might not match between all the panels. The interior, despite looking amazingly retro cool today, was as poorly put together as you’d expect from an ’80s Italia car.
Well, except for the limited-edition Martini 6 cars. They got bright blue Recaros. I would do very terrible things to sit myself in those seats.
All in all, it’s this homologation history that makes the Integrale so deeply appealing. That in some fashion it traces its roots back to rule-bending Le Mans cars of the ’60s, adapted to tearing across the worst dirt roads in the world is about the coolest origin story a car can have. And it all means that in the real world, on roads that you can actually enjoy, the car is absolutely capable.
The Integrale was faster than the rally specials that came before it like the Audi Quattro, and it’s assuredly slower than the new big tire/fancier diff specials that followed. But the Lancia transcends its basic purpose of going fast by how it goes about that business.
When I look at one of those Evoluzione cars, I can’t help and imagine myself on a faraway country road, washing out into gravel after a rolling corner. My left foot ready for the next turn, waiting for the car to slide sideways and for the engine to howl away through the trees.
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Photo Credits: Lancia